Medical school is mostly boring and the parts that are not are often tragic, which is why few people write about the experience. Â Prospects facing newly-minted residents and attendings are not much better, as the overwhelming secularization of a discipline once seen as divine has fueled financial exploitation, divisive politics, and increasing frustration, cynicism, and disillusionment in those who once sought something more meaningful. Â While there have been exponential gains in scientific understanding and treatment achievement, changes in “medical ethics”, malpractice, and medical culture have also surpassed the average healthcare provider’s ability to make meaningful and humble sense of the world. Â As a result, not only has healthcare lost much of its posterity, austerity, and integrity in our post-post-modern culture, but it has coerced Christians into a defensive and embattled posture, in which they feel it is all they can do to simply be Christian and a physician, much less a Christian physician.
However, Edmund Pellegrino, founder of modern medical ethics and a Christian himself, once said, “Medicine is the most humane of sciences, the most empiric of arts, and the most scientific of humanities.”* Â By definition, medicine must bridge the most vexing dichotomies and paradoxes of our modern world: life and death, suffering and healing, spirit and body, science and faith. Â If it is to be of any value, it must make the transition from “benchwork to bedside,” across ever-widening socioeconomic gaps, and from sorrow to joy.
In short, the new nature of Redemptive Healthcare must be willing to and capable of adopting an innovative stance, again bridging seemingly disparate and conflicting forces with the counter-intuitive truth of the Gospel: that Jesus Christ, who was in very nature God, became a man and humbled himself to death, even death on the cross. . . . and that through that death we have forgiveness, healing, and resurrection.
In anticipation of the Lenten season and Easter, I would like to share a series of reflections on death and resurrection as played out in my journey through medical school and residency. Â The first of these begins with a reflection given at my medical school’s Anatomy Lab Memorial Service, where medical students gather annually to humbly thank the friends and families of the cadavers who donated their bodies to the dissection lab. Â I hope it resonates with those of you who have struggled to find some human connection to the theoretical work that takes place in your own laboratories, offices, and centers for learning and Gospel.
A Reflection on the Anatomy Lab. Â OrigÂiÂnally delivÂered March 1, 2007.
In preparÂing for this reflecÂtion, there were many senÂsaÂtions that came to mind: the dryÂness of dread in my mouth on that first day of lab, the sharp snap of latex gloves, the linÂgerÂing smell of disÂinÂfecÂtant on my hands, the gritty knot in my stomÂach unravÂelÂing after my first day of dissection.Â I rememÂbered the overÂwhelmÂing and unnamed emoÂtions assoÂciÂated with those days in lab: the wonÂder and revulÂsion of holdÂing a human heart with no life or a brain with no mind, the anger and sadÂness of havÂing to employ the tool of detachÂment for the proÂfesÂsional busiÂness of learnÂing.Â Since then, I have been lookÂing for some sort of cloÂsure, a tanÂgiÂble action or symÂbol to serve as a refÂerÂence point for the comÂing day when I will once again be conÂfronted with the paraÂdox of proÂfesÂsional compassion.
That search for cloÂsure took me back to a parÂticÂuÂlar SatÂurÂday night that found me alone in the lab.Â UnderÂstandÂably so; few peoÂple enjoy spending their weekÂend nights in an anatomy lab.Â But someÂtimes labÂoÂraÂtoÂries are our speÂcial sancÂtuÂarÂies: a place where we can find ourÂselves alone with the silence of our thoughts, our obserÂvaÂtions, and the proÂfound presÂence of someÂthing that is both familÂiar and yet so far removed from our comÂpreÂhenÂsion that it might as well beÂ holy.
As I was conÂcenÂtratÂing on the disÂsecÂtion, my hand brushed passed the cadaverâ€™s hand.Â I paused momenÂtarÂily and wonÂdered how it was that only a month ago the thought of holdÂing a cadaverâ€™s hand sent chills down my spine.Â I wonÂdered how my heart had come to treat the cadaver with an amiÂable detachÂment.Â It brought to mind a reflecÂtion writÂten years ago by a friend when she first began medÂical school:
Hands that once held a teacup.Â Hands that once grasped a pen.Â Hands that once craÂdled the hand of a lover, patÂted the head of a grandÂchild, shook the hand of a friend.Â Where had those hands been?Â Whom did they once belong to?Â Is there a wife, a son, a daughÂter, a friend someÂwhere who yet mourns the loss of life in thoseÂ hands?
I had this odd desire to cry in the midÂdle of the anatomy lab, to grieve for someÂone I didnâ€™t even know.Â As my humanÂity flooded back into me, I began to think about the friends and famÂily whose hands I canâ€™t wait to grasp again.Â Lifeâ€¦ well, it is here today, gone tomorÂrow.Â Next time you shake someoneâ€™s hand, think of what a blessÂing it is to be able to do soâ€¦ and of the Grace that susÂtains each and every one of us, givÂing us life and love and the hope of an eterÂnity together inÂ peace.
HesÂiÂtatÂing, I reached out and held the cadaverâ€™s hand.Â I held her hand, casuÂally and leisurely letÂting myself warm up to the senÂtiÂment that it used to be human. . . . was still human in so many ways.Â I thought about the friends and famÂily that this woman â€“ once filled with age and memÂoÂries â€” held onto in her dyingÂ days.
I felt privÂiÂleged to enter into such blind intiÂmacy, but I also felt visÂcerÂally disÂturbed, as if the body gifted to me had someÂhow reached out and into my own soul.Â I realÂized that it was the first dead body I had ever seen, and it didnâ€™t seem to be much of a body atÂ all.
But in the quiet moment of this reflectÂing, I canÂnot help but realÂize that it was not only a cadaver; not just another labÂoÂraÂtory specÂiÂmen.Â It was a gift, a daughÂter, a mysÂtery, a lover, a bunÂdle of nerves and musÂcles, a house of memÂoÂries.Â I look at my own hands with wonÂder.Â I see its own creases, etched by years of holdÂing on and letÂting go.Â In the words of JohnÂ Keats:
This livÂing hand, now warm and capaÂble of earnest grasping,
would, if it were cold and in the icy silence of theÂ tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreamÂing nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry ofÂ blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed â€“ see here itÂ is â€“
I hold it towards you.
I held a humanâ€™s hand that night. . . . and let it go.Â It has since become my refÂerÂence point.Â See, here is my own, its purÂpose yet unfulÂfilled.Â It too is someÂthing familÂiar and forÂeign: my own paraÂdox of humanÂity. Grasp it and leave it as you wish; I hold it out towards you.
*Pellegrino, Edmund D.Â The Philosophy of Medicine Reborn. Ed. H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. 6. Print.
About the author:
David graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and received his medical degree from Rutgers - Robert Wood Johnson Medical School with a Masters in Public Health concentrated in health systems and policy. He completed a dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. He continues to work in Delaware as a dual Med-Peds hospitalist. Faith-wise, he is decidÂedly Christian, and regarding everything else he will gladly talk your ear off about health policy, the inner city, gadgets, and why Disneyâ€™s Frozen is actually a terrible movie.